Friday, March 30, 2007

Heckler’s Tree

Written by Rich McManus

It was about 6:30 am in a heavy drizzle when Ashley pulled into the QFC parking lot in North Bend. She saw us right away. There was no one else in the parking lot - in the cold wet drizzle at that time of the morning. Bob Rinker, Mark Heckler, Mark’s dog Toby, Scott Lovell, and I were moving gear between cars and laughing about the slim likelihood of actually flying.

Bob had posted an email with the nwparagliding Yahoo group lobbying for pilots to accompany him on a hike-n-fly that morning. Of all those that read the invitation - only the five of us were there to attempt to hike and fly the fog, drizzle, and rain obscured Mt. Si. Ashley looked skeptical of the whole idea. She asked if any of us had checked the weather that morning. I laughed - I knew if I had checked the weather I would never have come. After a short chat regarding the length of the hike, the gain in elevation, and the likelihood of actually flying, Ashley decided she would rather not spend the morning hiking in the rain, loaded down with paragear, only to arrive at the summit, wait to not fly, get really rain-soaked, and then hike down - Which seemed the likely outcome of this adventure… She was obviously the only reasonable individual in the group.

The rest of us climbed into Bob’s car and followed Mark to the trailhead. We left Scott’s car at the QFC. At the Mt. Si trailhead, Mark told us that he thought we should hike up by “the back way” - an old logging road that in the long lost past had been used by hang glider pilots to access the mountain. “So if we can’t fly - we can hike down the main trail and do a loop.” Bob had a concerned look as he asked about this “back way.” Mark assured all that he had hiked the route in the winter and knew the way. Bob still looked concerned. At the time, I didn’t know that Bob had experience with Mark’s route-finding expertise…

Photo caption: Hopelessly lost, we decided that if we ran out of food we would eat Mark first. (We donned helmets to stay dry - having left our umbrellas in the car to save weight).

Hopelessly lost...

So Mark and Toby hopped in Bob’s car and we headed to this alternate trailhead - that doubled as a school bus stop. Bob started the car, turned on the windshield wipers, and put the car in drive - then Bang! “Ruff!!, Ruff!!, Ruff!!”, Mark’s dog shot between the seats and slammed against the windshield, barking wildly. I was riding shotgun and struggled to peel him off the dashboard. Mark said calmly, “He hates windshield wipers…”

After only one short detour, we found the bus stop. Sure enough - a dirt road - that Mark assured would take us to the old hang launch. The road was gated and in excellent condition. Off we went. Time went by easily as we gabbed, laughed, and hiked up the road in the fog, drizzle, and occasional rain. Mark had said that toward the top we would find a side road that would lead to the hang launch. And, sure enough we found what looked like a road heading off into the snow after a couple hours of hiking. Yes - snow. There was about 3 feet of show remaining in the woods on either side of the main dirt road. So we tramped off into the snow, occasionally post-holing, trudging through snow, in the fog, the drizzle, and occasional rain…

The “road” seemed to disappear and we found ourselves bush-whacking through the woods - post-holing in two to three feet of snow, in the fog, the drizzle, and occasional rain. Then I understood Bob’s concern when Mark brought up the idea of an alternate route… We went on for a couple hundred yards and emerged from the snow onto the western side of the ridge. Mark claimed to see the Mt. Si haystack through the trees ahead. The rest of us thought he was hallucinating. Bob and I were dropping crumbs to facilitate road relocation should Mark ‘Pocahontas’ Heckler get us hopelessly lost… At one point we gave up, decided to bag the whole idea of flying, and head down when Bob thought he saw a more promising route through the woods. Always the optimist, Bob post-holed off in the snow in a new direction. Willing to follow a friend in folly, the rest of us post-holed after him - in the drizzle, the fog, and occasional rain…

Finally, we emerged from the woods, found the hiking trail, and found ourselves at launch - in the fog, the drizzle, and occasional rain. Launch conditions were less than optimal. Ignoring the fog, the drizzle, and occasional rain, we couldn’t even see the valley below. We were confident there was a valley below because we had been there before - but it was totally obscured by heavy cloud cover - so we waited - in the fog, drizzle,and occasional rain…

We found sheltered spots amongst the rocks and settled in to let the weather improve. If you look up at Mt. Si from North Bend - on a day when the summit is not obscured by clouds - you’ll see the obvious rock point that jets up from the summit ridge. That’s the Hay Stack. Launch is just to the right: A steep rocky slope that terminates at a cliff about 30 yards down slope. Large boulders mark the launch to the right, and Heckler’s Tree marks the launch on the left. As I understand the story, the 30-foot tall pine earned the name Heckler’s Tree after Mark spent quality time suspended in it on two occasions.

So we waited in the fog, the drizzle, and occasional rain. After about an hour we decided it was about time to give up and head down. It was decided that we would wait until noon and then pack up. At five-till noon the cloud cover broke - momentarily. It was enough for us to see the ground and there was a light breeze blowing directly up launch. We were good to go! Bob was the first to get ready. He waited for a break in the clouds - then pulled up his wing - oops - as his wing came up, a steering line caught on a rock and the wing came up facing Heckler’s Tree. Bob turned to launch, Mark yelled “Right!”, Bob took three steps and applied right break, and flew into Heckler’s Tree.

Scott deftly scampered up the tree to initiate wing removal procedures. It took about 30 minutes to free Bob, and for take-off conditions to improve to marginal. Mark laid out and put Toby into his flying harness. Mark says he likes to fly. The wind was right, the visibility lousy, Mark looked over his shoulder (likely couldn’t see anything), brought his wing up and off he went. I was next - laid out, waited for a good cycle, looked over my shoulder (definitely couldn’t see anything), brought the wing up, and off I went.

It was a magical flight. There were layers of clouds up and down the valley. Above, below, left, and right. It made for a wild scene. After a couple of minutes I located the North Bend QFC and spied Mark cruising in that direction. The flight was smooth and uneventful. I saw Scott take off and follow me out. Landing was a bit stressful. We landed in the softball fields behind QFC where Bubba and his eight best friends were having batting practice. On final I was a bit concerned about being on the wrong end of a ground-rule double, but landed uneventfully.

We packed up and waited for Bob to follow, but no wing appeared. Finally we got a phone call. The instigator of this adventure was unable to fly. The lines of his glider were hopelessly tangled. He was going to walk down. But at least he could walk down the trail and do a loop!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Catching Up

By Tom McCune

How many times have you gone out to fly XC with your fellow pilots, only to find that they are halfway to Enumclaw when you are setting up to launch? Or perhaps you are in a competition and didn’t quite get high enough to go on course when the start cylinder opened, but the rest of the pack is out on course gaining distance. How do you catch up to them? It is not always easy but if you can identify the type of lift the day is offering, and combine it with current knowledge, you can then make it work to your advantage to close the gap or maybe even win the day. While it is often fun to be out in front of the pack, only one pilot basks in this glory; the rest are simply catching up.

Tom McCune and Bill Belcourt

At the PG Worlds Comp in Australia, Task One has been cancelled, but Tom McCune (left) and fellow US teammate Bill Belcourt are still smiling. Photo by Conrad Kreick.

I remember years ago Will Gadd said, “the distance between thermals is two to four times the height of the thermal from ground to cloud base”. When you are flying, each day should find you analyzing how high you are and how far you need to go to find the next thermal. This is ‘in theory’ because you can also find broad areas of lift and broad areas of sink. In addition, terrain will play a big role in lift and sink around Tiger. Remember to be flexible while you think your way through the sky because things change as you cover more ground.

Competitions make good examples of what works because there are so many pilots to see at once. During the 2005 Rat Race at Woodrat Mt. cloud base was fairly low on all five days. Since cloud base was low, it would make sense that thermals were scattered around everywhere and one need not go too far to find lift. With that being the case, it made no sense to go all the way to the cloud even though it was a low base. Those who did had nice elevation but were getting farther behind with each climb. With a higher cloud base, I find it more useful to maximize the lift as far as I can. Sounds ironic or backwards but with the lift spread out farther, it will be harder to find the next thermal source unless you can actually see it via clouds or dust devils. Obviously at Tiger we want to get as high as we legally can when going XC regardless of how high cloud base is because of limited LZs, however, I once left Tiger from 2700’ MSL and flew past Enumclaw. I used to have a rule that I would not leave unless I could get to 5 grand but obviously that rule is now in the trash. Keeping in mind this thermal distance rule can help you decide to go when there is a low cloud base.

Using speed bar to catch up when we are higher is a natural tendency but when lower we tend to back off the bar. If the distance between thermals is relevant to the height of the thermal, then it really should not make a difference when we push bar. Or does it? If it is totally thermic and there is no interference with other types of air currents, then speed bar can be pushed regardless of how high base is. In all conditions, pilots sometimes find themselves on the ground after cramming bar racing ahead for the blue ribbon. You can go faster but you also need another thermal to stay on course and thermals do not always line up with the course you desire to fly. I think the speed bar is a whole story unto itself and full of technical decisions which vary constantly. Identifying and utilizing the type of lift will help you get through the sky better on any day and also help you in speed bar decisions.

Some pilots will stop and work every scrap of lift they fly through so they can ‘top it off’ before continuing. While this can be advantageous in tricky areas it is not the best thing to do if winning a comp or catching up is your goal. A good comp pilot will normally pass up small thermals and only core big lift. I have seen this style and it works in places where there is plenty of big lift like Chelan, but in the mountains with varying lift, the decision to be flexible about which thermal to use will keep you in the air. Normally it is best to find strong lift on days that provide it and only utilize weak lift when needed, but at Tiger we are often forced to work the weak stuff.

Tom at Tiger Mountain

Tom launches from his home site, Tiger Mountain. Photo by Kerry Ryan.

Another way of gaining ground would be to work a convergence. As nasty as they can be at times, the convergence is a great way to cover ground without losing elevation. One mistake we often make while using this type of lift is that we turn in it too much or fail to properly track it and thus end up in the sinking side. A convergence is not seen or easily identified unless there are clouds, dust devils, or smoke revealing its presence. Regardless of how we identify it, it must be flown by feel. The lift it provides rarely gives us a defined thermal so try to keep from turning in it too much and do not expect it to take you on a direct course line. Take it as far as you can and then cut across to where you really need to go. In a Chelan competition, I used this technique to gain a lot of ground one day. I was low at the start and one of the last pilots on course, but when I identified a convergence, I passed dozens of pilots, turned very little for several miles and nearly caught the lead gaggle. A convergence will normally have a trashy side and a lift side. When you get whacked hard in a convergence — and you will — identifying it is the first step to utilizing it for all it has to offer.

When starting at the back of the pack, there is a distinct advantage of seeing pilots going up or down all along the course. You can see the stronger thermals and even observe pilots wasting time in lighter lift. If you are forced to use this strategy, use it to help yourself out but do not use it as an exclusive source of finding lift because you will not be challenging yourself. If you are new to XC, utilize this till you become brave. With several pilots out in front, you may also see a line of lift that you can ‘surf’ instead of stopping for the thermal. That strategy will definitely help you to catch up if you work it properly.

Those types of lift and flying styles will cover most cases but there is also ‘wave lift’ which can be flown. High pressure and low pressure will give a different type of lift. Wave lift is another topic all to itself so let’s save that for later discussion.

Try something new occasionally. It can be a risk that puts you on the ground quickly, but if you learn something, you just might find yourself flying farther next time. Going to the north ridge at Tiger often puts pilots in the LZ when they first try, but they eventually learn how, and then become regulars out there. Crossing a difficult area with a gaggle will normally get everyone better results so do not get far behind if you can help it. This will save you the challenge of catching up to those who are in the lead.

Challenge yourself to learn something new. Nobody knows it all and paragliding is a new adventure with seemingly new twists. It can only make you better when you put forth an effort. Then when you do learn something new, share it with me because even I find myself trying to play the ‘catching up’ game. As you can see, I’m still learning too!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Pilots Help Out at Blanchard

By Murdoch Huges:

Paraglider pilots turn out to help the ailing owner of the Blanchard LZ.

It looked like rain … “A perfect day for a work party,” I thought, as we packed our flying gear and our Rat Terrier, Wolf, into the car for the trip north. There is nothing more difficult than a work party in sight of launch, with puffy, little, white Snow Geese clouds overhead honking at you to get up there before it’s too late. However this project was one I’d be happy to participate in even on the best of flying days.

Tom Wake’s field is the Blanchard LZ, and has been for many years. Hang glider pilots first secured permission to land there, and of course they were also the first to fly from little Blanchard Mountain’s 1150’ launches overlooking the San Juan Islands. In the early years, before retirement, Tom only stayed there part-time because of the extensive traveling he did in his occupation. My first flight after obtaining my P-2, was from Blanchard’s west launch on June 28th, 1998. Jim Reich of Fly BC was there with some students that day, and he still kids me about my first launch attempt, aborted, as I turned too quick and my lines caught my new glasses, knocking them halfway off my face (before I started wearing a string to keep from losing them). I grabbed my glasses with one hand and pulled brake with the other, falling forward down the hill headfirst toward the cliff. I didn’t go over, and I saved my glasses, as well as providing Jim with a huge grinning remembrance whenever he sees me.

Since Jan and I live only fifty minutes from the Blanchard launch, I’ve had many flights there since, and countless landings in Tom Wake’s twenty acre fields. Not once in all of those years has Tom asked for anything from the pilots, while graciously providing us parking space and the use of his fields for landing after flights over one of the most beautiful sites that exist anywhere. Of course pilots have tried to pay him back in some small ways, like helping out with his landscaping and gardens on occasion.

This was to be one of those days. As we drove north we decided to go the “back way”, exiting I-5 at Conway. The quicker way, almost as scenic, is to exit I-5 north of Mt Vernon, taking the Chuck-a-nut Drive highway angling seven miles northwest toward the coast. The “back way” goes west on Fir Island Road, past Conway (the site of a famous motorcycle tour stop, the Conway Pub, renowned for its burgers and oysters). The backcountry road eventually turns north, becoming the best road through the Skagit Valley tulip fields (it’s the best road because it is the “Best” road, that’s its name). The tulips weren’t out yet, but the daffodils were, with many flocks of Snow Geese and Trumpeter Swans feeding in the green fields. The Best road takes you right through the small village of Edison, past the Longhorn Tavern where we often retire after a long day of flight. Then the road goes east crossing Chuck-a-nut Drive, where you turn back north for a couple of miles to Tom Wake’s place, which is the farmhouse with a windsock at the road marking his long driveway.

We were arriving a bit late on this day, but were relieved to see many cars lined up along Tom’s driveway, and workers everywhere. After the gauntlet of backslappers telling us “it was about time we got there”, we got directions from the many supervisors on what had to be done. A paragliders’ work party never seems to lack for supervisors giving countermanding orders, and it’s kind of fun to go to them one by one and say, “Well so-and-so said to do it this way…” Luckily Tom Wake was there as the final arbitrator, and a lot of work was accomplished in spite of the ensuing confusion I caused.

Tom Wake was recently diagnosed with a rare cancer of some type, after a bout of internal bleeding. He spent some time in the hospital for an operation, and has to return soon for decisions on methods to fight it, whether with chemo or more operations. We tried not to pester him with questions about it, so I don’t know too many details, but as you all know, the big “C” is always serious and life-threatening.

Tom was home on the day of the work party though, and while he can’t do any lifting he looked pretty good for what he had been through, and he was extremely happy with the amount of work accomplished. He told me it was twice as much as he had hoped to get done. Tom is proud of his beautiful house and his gardens and had been worried about what would become of them this year. We (the royal we) planted flowers and blueberry bushes, weeded around the house flower beds, mulched the fruit trees, rototilled the main garden, put down woodchips, weeded, and all of the other stuff that goes with spring planting. By the end, Tom was beaming.

There were 15 pilots (and drivers) there, and even I worked hard, holding up shovels and various other implements of torture I have been running from since my days growing up on a dairy farm. The funny thing is, I have never attended a Blanchard work party where we weren’t rewarded with great soaring, and it was true on that day. After lunch at the Longhorn we got to launch around 2:30pm, with a pilot soaring way above us. We soon joined him there and flew for hours.

Finally, with frozen fingers, I landed back in Tom’s field, thanking him silently for helping to make such a day possible, and very proud of the fifteen pilots who were there to show him our gratitude, sharing a silent prayer that he will be there with us for many years to come.
p.s. If you couldn’t make the work party, you can always volunteer a few minutes of time to do a little work around his place, anytime. The thermal gods will look kindly upon you, but you can always go there just to fly.

Murdoch Hughes
“The Seattle Barista Killer”, April, 2007,
Mundania Press
“Death Mask of the Jaguar”
“Murder In La Paz” Eppie Winner, Best Mystery, 2005
Hard Shell Amazon